At the very edge of China’s largest cities stand man-made barriers of carefully maintained grass crisscrossed with stone paths, young saplings supported by tripods of wood, and scattered stands of pines, oaks and willows. On the city side of these “green belts,” buildings brush up close, but in the free space, people gather in the shade, walk with their young children and move freely. On the far side of these barriers, a half-rural, half-urban landscape of fields and settlements awaits the developer. Only the green belt stands in the way.
In January, China’s Ministry of Land and Resources informed major cities across the country that old regulations calling for green belts outside of urban areas will be strictly enforced for the next two years. China has struggled to achieve a balance between urbanization and arable land since the late 1950s, when many of China’s major cities received marching orders to include green belts in their city planning blueprints. The recent announcement is an attempt by the central authorities to rein in regional authorities whose reliance on land sales to finance basic local services is leading to an urbanization that’s hurting the national economy and standard of living.
The amount of green, arable land China’s cities must preserve hasn’t changed for decades, but the ability and willingness of local authorities to comply fluctuates constantly. In previous years, major events such as the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010 and the Fortune Global Forum in Chengdu in 2012 elicited calls for the preservation of green land. But once such events are over, the calls fade away and cities return to the common practice of selling land to developers, regardless of whether or not the sale fits with the city’s master plan for growth. The struggle between rural and urban continues unabated.
There might be two reasons for this latest call from the ministry. The first is a loss of enough land to urbanization that the nation is hovering around the central government’s 120 million hectare threshold for national food security. The second is the impact urban pollution is having on the economy, health and living standards, and social stability.
Green belts are an old idea, arising out of the 8th International Residences and City Planning Conference held in Amsterdam in 1924. Delegates to the conference fused the garden city and green belt concepts coming out of the U.K. with the national parks system coming out of the U.S., and devised “multi-regional urban planning” to stem infinite urbanization.
In a seven-article declaration, the conference adopted the construction of satellite cities, the introduction of green belts and the resolution of traffic problems as the three major ways to help control urban sprawl. Several studies have suggested that a green belt is not enough to contain sprawl, and Beijing experienced this first hand, when the first green belt built in 2011 to contain the city was overrun by developers. More green belts are planned and under construction, but there is no guarantee that an unmanned border of grass and trees can hold back the inexorable march of concrete and profit.
Meanwhile, major metropolitan areas like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are on the short list of 14 cities that must create new green belts — and preserve old ones — or face the wrath of the central government. In past decades, profits from land sales and uneven oversight tended to assuage that wrath, but increasing pollution and President Xi Jinping’s need to maintain his image as China’s paramount modern leader are game-changers.
The threat of pollution to China’s economy and social stability is an established one, addressed as early as the 1990s and throughout the last decade. Now, localized protests against petrochemical plants, oil spills and other environmental threats are becoming more and more prevalent, and the power of social media magnifies the threat to central authority. China is not just internationally well known for polluted cities, but domestically as well. The rising middle-class in China has demanded solutions to the problems, and those with the means to do so emigrate to countries with less pollution.
The issue for Chinese urban planners has never been a lack of ideas or motivation. Singapore’s environmentally symbiotic model has been the goal since the late 1970s. The problem has always been implementation on the ground level, where economic concerns, and the need to meet politically motivated economic goals, have consistently trumped all other orders from the top.
But now with a powerful leader who has a focused approach on economic progress and social stability, the Ministry of Land and Resources feels confident enough to issue a proclamation to the cities of the nation: Reign in sprawl now, or face consequences.